A State of Freedom (2017) by Neel Mukherjee is difficult, abrasive, painfully beautiful and shamlessly gory. This book is a kaleidoscope of struggles, feelings, searches and broken dreams. Not a single character is fully likable or relatable.
Part I is about immigration- leaving one’s homeland, and then returning ‘home’ (is it still home?) and bringing with you a son, who’s a second generation immigrant – and this theme continues on into Part II. This reminds me a lot of the questions posed by Americanah. There have been a lot of books about immigration lately, focusing on culture and what we take with us or leave behind, what happens when we return, etc. This is probably a reflection of our new globalized world where communities are turning into a hodge-podge of different cultures and backgrounds. Sometimes I can relate, having spent stints abroad and having a lot of people in my life who have been displaced and now live in Qatar. The latter have Qatari passports but lack the Qatari ‘essence’ and still identify with their ‘homelands’, speaking their own dialects, with their imported rites and rituals and forming their own communities with ex-patriots who are more like them than fellow nationals. I think it’s a blessing for me to be so steadfastly sure of who I am, being rooted in generations and generations of the same community. Sure, I feel stifled by this society sometimes, but they are also a safety blanket.
The novel starts off with the man saying that his 6 year old son wasn’t used to ghost stories and he’s worried if he was overwhelmed. I experienced a similar thing, here in Qatar, adults don’t usually hide things like death or illness from the children. In more recent “PC” generations they do. I was sitting with my 6 year old cousin and I don’t know what the story was about but I used the word ‘coma’. He asked me what’s ‘coma’? and I was like ‘umm, when you sleep for a really long time’. And my mum added ‘and you never wake up’ and here the boy went super quiet and I admonished her. Since when have I been wary of kids hearing about this stuff when I grew up with death being normal and ghost stories (ghosts scared me way more than the concept of death btw).
in the first few pages i felt like he was being too vague and dramatic. I think what was his way to try and entice us and make it sem mystical actually ended up having me confused.
“The mind really was the unruliest and basest of human attributes”.
Part II is all about food – I recommend getting your favourite Indian take-out to avoid drooling on the pages while you read this section. It is also about classism and sexism (the presence of misogyny continues in the next part too).
The way A State of Freedom is different from Americanah is that it discusses these topics subtly and through the story, instead of preaching to the readers with miniature essays and poorly-concealed racial pedagogy. It presents the events of the book and leaves it up to you to become enraged at the events and take up the cause organically and of your own volition.
“Against the wishes and hopes of tens of millions of people in the country, Lakshman prays”.
This is a spoiler but I just HAVE to talk about this when talking about Part III. The treatment of the bear-cub is one of the most heart-wrenching, gut-twisting scenes I’ve ever read. It’s bad enough that humans are dehumanized and treated like animals. This phrase – treated like animals – is telling enough. It shows how people normalize the mistreatment of animals. It is because we can treat animals – living creatures – so badly that we have the ability to treat fellow humans badly. They say psychopaths and serial killers start out by killing pets and small animals. There has to be an inhumane part of you to be so brutal to anything, and that’s the part of us that shows so clearly in this scene. As this book proves, if you can torture a bear you can beat your wife too (or, if you can beat your wife then you can torture a bear). Cruelty is cruelty, and the ability to routinely enact violence means that you are a danger to ALL living creatures, human or otherwise.
“They are animals, their pain doesn’t last. All these animals that live in the wild, in the forest, on the streets, you’ve never known them to need a doctor, have you?”
I learned more about this cruel practice here.
This book crept up on me. It kept getting better and better and by Part IV I’m completely and irrevocably hooked and I’m officially in love – even though I was a little uncertain and unimpressed in the beginning. Part IV broke my heart over and over again. It made me grateful for my literacy, for my family, for my daily meals that I take for granted, for my education and for being safe and happy enough to concern myself with trivial things like fictional novels and blogs and book club.
The end of this part makes me see something that I thought was a little cruel as SUPER kind and generous. That’s how much this book turns things on their heads.
“In the end it’s not despair that kills you but hope”
Part V by its very nature makes you zoom through it (it’s crazy how this author is able to completely switch styles) and the the ENDING OH MY GOD. All I can say is pay attention in the beginning because it’s insane how he brings the story around full circle.